Book to Read: The Lazarus Project

The Lazarus Project, published in 2008, is a novel by Bosnian writer Aleksandar Hemon. It was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. The novel was the inaugural winner of the Jan Michalski Prize for Literature in 2010—two years after its publication. The Lazarus Project was inspired by the true story of Lazarus Averbuch, a Russian-born Jewish immigrant to Chicago. Lazarus, who survived the Kishinev pogrom, was shot and killed by Chicago Chief of Police George Shippy in March of 1908. The incident catalyzed fears of foreign-born anarchists (based in part on their involvement with the Haymarket Affair in 1886).

A century after Lazarus’s death, the fictional Vladimir Brik, a young, Eastern European writer living in Chicago, becomes obsessed with his story. With the help of his photographer friend Rora, a former war photographer from Sarajevo, he travels to Eastern Europe in an attempt to better understand Lazarus’s story. Brik’s intent, originally to write a book about Lazarus and the immigrant experience, shifts into personal exploration as the journey slips into a retracing of his experience of the Bosnian war. The novel also features photographs by Hemon’s childhood friend, photographer Velibor Božović.

Hemon’s masterly understanding of plot and prose make this an engaging read for any audience. As the story progresses, small similarities begin to appear in the lives of both Brik and Lazarus: a lost glove, a family member in Chernivtsi, a female family member named Olga. Hemon dangles these details in front of the reader, encouraging unreachable conclusions and drawing similarities across the timelessness of immigrant experience. Of this book, The New Yorker writes, “Hemon’s writing sometimes reminds one of Nabokov’s… yet the feat of his reinvention exceeds the Russian’s… An astonishing talent… Magnificent… Appealing… Cunningly ambitious.”